Blue Ox Music Festival in Eau Claire, Wisconsin returned for its 6th reiteration this past weekend. The family run festival had some last minute cancellations but the depth of the lineup shone through with special double sets and last minute additions. Music in Minnesota wanted to share stories from unique perspectives on what the festival means, the value of performing, and the challenges leading up to stepping on stage.
We interviewed 6 artists that showcased the variety of experience and variations of the Americana and Bluegrass genre. Instead of seeing the festival from the front, we went backstage. We spoke to the Virtual Band Competition winners, The Foxgloves on what it means on winning the opportunity to play the festival, Third Man Records artist Lillie Mae on traveling with her family, bluegrass icon Charlie Parr on the reason for touring, Barbaro with a special tribute to Max Graham, Pert Near Sandstone on the future of Blue Ox, and Shakey Graves on the struggles of touring during a pandemic.
Born into a family band, Lillie Mae has been playing music since she was 3 years old. Her sibling group Jypsi has achieved top 40 country status. She’s played national tours with Jack White and in 2014 launched her solo career. Her latest release Other Girls was produced by Grammy-winner Dave Cobb at the famed RCA Studio A.
Festivals for Lillie Mae have always been a second home. Lillie shares that they are so much more fun than a regular show because it’s built in, there’s an audience there that you wouldn’t get to otherwise play to with your own personal show. The other benefits that she shared comes with the community of pickers at these type of festivals.
“I grew up in a bluegrass band, jamming, and used to be so nervous and scared to play in front of people. My dad would force us to jam. We’d be in a circle and I would pretend to fall asleep. I was too nervous to actually play with other people.”
There’s a bit of a scarring effect that’s linked to jamming with her. Lillie doesn’t actually jam a lot because of those insecurities, but singing is the exact opposite. Her career has been filled with being the side man, collaborating, and providing vocals for a variety of artists. Since going solo in 2014, she only really gets nervous for Lillie Mae shows, but never when performing with other groups. This tour has seen a huge shift in her confidence as she’s surrounded by her sister Scarlett and brother Franklin on stage.
Lillie Mae was quick to disclose that she doesn’t have any pre-show rituals, although then shared that they wrote out the set list before they arrived at the festival. That’s a huge plus because usually the pre-show ritual becomes the scramble to write the set list down as they’re walking on stage, trying to get five copies for everyone.
She shared a story about playing a festival the other day as the first band. The audience became freakingly dead silent in between pauses in the music. There wasn’t a peep from the crowd. She reminisced about how amazing that was, so engaged and listening. Laughing, she said it was also the morning and people probably weren’t wasted just yet.
“It’s absolutely amazing that we get to do this at all. And also on the other hand, when you really think about it, it’s such a weird thing that we do, we go up on stage and we expect people to clap. That’s kind of a bizarre thing.”
Their 3rd time playing Blue Ox as a band, Barbaro has found a new level of comfort of coming to the festival. The musical vision explores collective life experiences through intricate instrumentation, blending traditional bluegrass into a style that is their own. You hear jazz and chamber influences as well, making Barbaro a prime example of the expansion in the bluegrass genre.
As young alumni, Barbaro has observed the growth and bedrock of Blue Ox over the years. They’ve witnessed Bela Fleck jam on the late night stage, hosted a mando-manium, and spent many late nights picking with other artists. Isaac Sammis (banjo) shares there is consistently a lot of enthusiasm and the line up is always insanely good. Rachel Calvert (fiddle/vocals) agrees,
“Honestly, what I love about this festival is it’s actually the same great vibes. I don’t feel that much has changed, which is why it feels so good because it feels like you’re coming home. Our friends who we love are here, all of the acts that we are inspired by, and that we look up to are here.”
Kyle Shelstad (guitar/vocals) adds how the energy of the festival seeps into everything. You walk around to get a lay of the landscape, catch up with friends who are traveling as well, and make quick connections with new artists. The community spirit is something you can’t fight, it just happens from the moment you arrive. The feeling of being a part of the festival becomes more than just doing a simple set.
What makes Blue Ox so special to them is the convergence of skilled artists and the last minute surprises that happen. An example is a last minute cancellation which brought together a supergroup of musicians in the form of the Kyle Tuttle Band filling in. They also listed Lillie Mae as another fresh face that continually expands the music there.
“The fact (Blue Ox) brings in people like Jason Isbell shows it’s not just the same bluegrass lineup year over year. They mix it up as a lot of these festivals are becoming more general roots and Americana music,” Isaac shares.
There was no greater example of the bluegrass community than the tributes and memorials that artists had for Max Graham and Jeff Austin over the weekend. Barbaro honored both with a butterfly release before their set. Max was a huge inspiration for so many musicians.
“Max had an incredible ability to not only understand music technically, but feel it as a part of himself and an expression of his person. I don’t know a single musician that didn’t admire him as a player, a human, and a professional. We miss our pal dearly.”
The Minneapolis six-piece band set some landmarks over the weekend, becoming the first all-female group to perform at the festival. Carting a full sized harp and auto-harp onstage also pushed the norm in bluegrass traditions. The Foxgloves are a blend of country, folk, bluegrass, and a little dose of classical. As winners of the Virtual Band Competition, they earned a spot at the prized Back Woods stage, something a new band covets due to the exposure. It’s been a surreal summer and opening for Pert Near Sandstone at Nordic Brewing earlier in the year was a bucket list moment.
Most of the band arrived on Thursday to camp the as they wanted the whole experience. “Shenanigans on Thursday, go to church on Friday,” shared Steph Snow (vocals/ukulele). They spent the day meeting people, sharing stickers, and networking with other artists. The festival certainly provides tremendous exposure for a new band, but for The Foxgloves, the goal is a bit next level. They have used the opportunity to get inspired by what other bands are doing and seeing what direction they may want to go with their music.
“Blue Ox is just so unique and special with all these bands. There’s not one that doesn’t have something unique and something special about them. And you’re learning and growing from all of them,” Martina Morgan (bass) states.
They’ve also noticed how the trickle down culture of the festival is community based. All of them met their neighbors in the campgrounds and built friendships. That feeling has been reciprocated with other bands. Maura Dunst (vocals/fiddle/mandolin) shares,
“It seems like there’s a real attitude of everyone supporting each other and lifting each other up, giving opportunities to smaller bands who maybe wouldn’t have the visibility on their own, providing them those opportunities rather than being proprietary about the space that you occupy.”
The Foxgloves have already had some special moments seeing someone they didn’t know wearing one of their tee shirts. They’ve also been approached by people sharing that they voted for them and are excited to see their set. Sara Tinklenberg (vocals/percussion) was tasked to provide a post-show celebration cocktail. Sitting in the Alice in Wonderland art exhibit, it very much felt like a dream these 6 women are experiencing together.
Charlie Parr has been a Minnesota bluegrass icon for the better part of almost 20 years. He’s played every Blue Ox except for the first, and is always an instant crowd favorite. People line up to watch Charlie’s set because he connects to our own stories and imaginations. His latest release, Last of The Better Days Ahead was released on July 30th, which is his 16th album. Finding him backstage was easy, and engaging with him even easier.
Charlie shares that Blue Ox has some obvious changes since the beginning. Larger crowds, higher production quality, and larger lineups to name a few. But the fundamental part of the festival hasn’t changed. The people that put it on are friends of Charlie’s, and they are very accessible. It’s held that small intimate feeling. He recognizes that as a musician, if you organize something, you naturally have more skin in the game. It isn’t like larger sponsored festivals where you arrive, are told where to go, try to do a good job playing, then collect a check and leave. Blue Ox is built with musicians, which makes him appreciate it more. He offers to help, doesn’t hide anywhere, and spends time seeing his friends and having conversations.
“I’m not a very good career-y person. I’ve never been able to think in those terms. So doing the business of music has never been my strength. I play places and am excited to play with my friends and make music.”
Charlie needs to primarily make music for himself. If he’s doing that and he’s having a good time, there’s bound to be somebody out there that will like it too. He’s found that if you come across musicians who are making music because they want to increase their footprint and sell more records, he feels a little cold. It’s not about money. Music is eternal, it wasn’t created, it cannot be destroyed. Charlie shares it’s something that you are privileged to participate in and as soon as you make it into a business, it diminishes things.
Comparing a painter to a musician, Charlie points out that if he paints a portrait and sells it to someone, you can’t go to their house and touch it up. It’s not yours anymore. He rewrites songs every night and then they disappear into the ether. And then he comes back and writes them again the next night. Songs evolve from the recordings and come along with him each show. Charlie also doesn’t write set lists for any shows. He walks on stage and determines based on the feeling what he’s going to recreate.
“There’s this mantra of this is not an emergency. Music is you moving air molecules around. And when you’re done doing that they’ll move back to where they were. It’s like it didn’t happen.”
The famed Back Woods stage has been another special space for Charlie. He states that expectations are taken away when performing back there. It’s different from the Main Stage where a certain bar is set where you’re obliged to reach it. Whatever happens back there just happens, freeing up possible opportunities for those magical moments.
Pert Near Sandstone
Leading up to Blue Ox, the amount of changes and last minute cancellations were an indication that we’re not out of the woods just yet. Nate Sipe (mandolin) from Pert Near Sandstone sat down with us on the third day to discuss the culture and value of the festival, even in uncertain times.
After their performance on day two, Nate shares they reflected on the hardships the last two years and how they finally were back onstage together. Seeing friends and bands after two years has been a welcomed change of pace instead of using emails and virtual platforms. He says it’s like an awakened dream and hard not to be emotional.
There is a constant balance with the intention to expand and forever want Blue Ox to be alluring to a wider audience, while keeping the smaller intimacy intact. As a local festival, family run and operated, Nate sees it as a microcosm that they hope includes a macrocosm. There will always be growing pains, but the benefit of being fan-centric is the ability to listen and improve the small things year over year.
In discussing the expansion of genre’s and evolution of bluegrass, Nate points out that his band is eclectic by a member that is into pop country, another into heavy metal, while he’s into traditional folk, old time. That helps them inform what other directions and influences that can be included in bluegrass music. The genre itself is changing and developing as well. Blue Ox wants to be inclusive to this evolution. Nate shares,
“Back in the ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’ days when everyone traded the electric guitar for a banjo, you had punk rockers hopping trains and spreading folk music into a different millennium. These groups today are starting to add drums and guitars.”
Initially the Back Woods stage was the late night stage and was placed in the back because it wouldn’t be facing some of the neighbors that we would be disturbing. This year we saw the inclusion of music on the back stage during the days. As they’ve grown and seen more regional bands on the Side Stage, they wanted to keep a space for the local bands and talent.
“We need to have more of a local talent here representing the festival. It was a vision for us since the beginning. As bigger acts came on, we needed to find more slots of our local bands.”
Both Nate and Mark Bischel don’t know what 2022 will bring, but hot air balloon rides was playfully suggested. They send out surveys to every attendee for suggestions and ways to keep Blue Ox special. The art installations were a new addition due to the amount of people coming forward wanting to build things for the woods. As a family run festival, with Pert Near Sandstone’s involvement, things are sure to stay magical.
The essentials of being back playing shows are an obvious positive for Shakey Graves. He shares it’s easy to become exhausted over the last 10-15 years touring and feeling like you’re sometimes doing the same thing over and over. (Shakey tongue-in-cheek shared that he’s seen his show more than anybody else.) The break in playing has brought back new life with a new band. But then there’s the reality of touring right now. He shares the stakes couldn’t be higher. Now you get to see how every state, how every city is dealing with either denying that something is happening or not.
“The best way that everybody has agreed to open everything is to have it just fall on the artists’ shoulders, which I think is the most fucked up thing ever. How many people do you want to either know you kill or don’t know you kill to play? Also my project is called Shakey Graves and I walk around and talk about death. I can’t go that extra step being the actual Grim Reaper.”
Shakey had planned on being at Blue Ox with a full band, but had some Covid situations arise and they cancelled 15 shows. What was supposed to be a bus with 10 people turned into him playing solo for 75 minutes. He’s certainly done that before, but jokingly add, “it’s essentially trying not to get too drunk or make sure I’m drunk enough, depending on how the day goes.”
Part of Shakey’s charm is his ability to read an audience and engage internally with his music. In asking about his past experiences busking, he admits he loathes it. The development you get from it is getting used to people not paying attention to you and trying to do short bursts of things to get money. It doesn’t help you develop as a songwriter by creating a lasting impact, but more about hawking goods and surviving.
The value Shakey receives from playing festivals isn’t in the boost of potential ears or networking in a tour bus backstage, but as he put it frankly, it’s to live a fulfilling life. Does he get anxious or nervous before stepping on stage? His answer here exemplifies Shakey’s personality perfectly.
“It’s blind confidence mixed with total self-crippling self-doubt and a deep love of mankind and a deep hatred of people, all kind of smashed together.”
Our FULL photo gallery with all the things we saw at Blue Ox Music Festival will come out soon.
If you want to discover any of these artists more, click on the links below.